Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Japanese Voice Actors: Subtitles vs Dubs

The question of subtitles vs dubs is a divisive one in the anime community. Many are quick to claim if you don't watch anime in subtitles, then you're not a real fan of anime. I won't go that far, but I will say that you're missing out.

Look, if your reading comprehension isn't the best, or if you have visual issues with reading and watching, or if you just don't want to be distracted from what's on the screen, then dub is an option. However, voice acting in the English speaking world is nothing like what it is in Japan.

Anime is an artform and medium that is as appreciated as any other in Japan. Right now, the anime movie for Yo-Kai watch is beating out Star Wars Episode VII in Japan's box office. Princess Mononoke was the highest grossing film of all-time in Japan until Titanic beat it. Anime's acceptance and prevalence in Japan means that the quality of actor for the original run of an anime is almost guaranteed to be better than the quality of actor that a dubbing company is able to get.

For that reason alone, the Japanese voice track is superior, and in an ideal world, we would all understand every language and you could just watch it in Japanese without having to read.

That being said, there's nothing wrong theoretically with a dub, if the dub is done well. For most anime series made in the last 15 years, the dub is done OK. Japanese still has the edge over the English-speaking actors and if possible, I choose to watch it in Japanese. For big release films, the voice acting is usually much better on both sides, and the English speaking actors are maybe not as good as the Japanese speaking actors, but they're usually good enough to give them the edge if English is your first language. It's also nice to be able to have anime on in the background and not give it 100% of your attention (which is necessary for subtitles). One other issue you may run into is bad translation, but you run into this with subtitles just as much as dubs. There have been many instances where I'm watching an anime and the subtitles translate something one way when it really probably should have been translated a different way or it lacks the subtlety that the original Japanese intended. With dubs, you also get the translators trying to get the words to match the lip flapping of the characters. It's a mess, but they do it a lot better since the 2000s than they ever did when I was growing up.

Before the 2000s, in the 90s and 80s, the English voice track is nearly always grating and unwatchable for adults. Children may be able to get past the terrible voice acting, but even if subtitles aren't your thing, for anime that old, having to pause to read the subtitles would be preferred to listening to the terrible, terrible, terrible voice acting done by English voice "actors".

There are exceptions, but generally those exceptions are by actor and not by series. As in, there may be one character that is voiced well, while the rest of the characters are shrill and annoying and will give you a headache if you listen to them.

So yeah, in summary:

80s - 90s: Japanese voice acting all the way.
00s - Present (TV series): If you struggle with subtitles, your language of choice dub is probably OK, but if not, then treat yourself to the Japanese voice acting.
00s - Present (Wide Release Film): Your language of choice dub

(of course, how many wide release films are there? Only 10 anime have ever been given a wide release in America, and of those, 7 were based on TV shows (and so the voice acting rules don't apply) and 3 were Studio Ghibli films. I included Princess Mononoke when I spoke about good voice acting above, but really, they were just good actors that were lending their voices; the reality is that you are almost always better going with the Japanese performance).

So yeah, learn to read better I guess. But I won't hold it against you if you like the dub and anyone that does is an elitist jerk. We should be trying to get more people interested in anime, not keep people from it.

What are your thoughts on the dub vs subtitles debate? I haven't really even touched on live-action dubs which are often unintentionally hilarious and even worse than anime dubs (although some are intentionally hilarious, the Raid movies and Battle Royale for example were just bad dubs).